Beg, Borrow or Steal? What can brands do in virtual worlds?
To the casual observer, during 2007, there was only one option for brands wanting to move into virtual worlds – Second Life. It still amazes me today how many totally unsuitable companies (based on product/service offering and target markets) actually set-up there.
To the more informed individual however, of course there’s other options for marketers – there’s a lot of different worlds out there….and even more to follow. And encouragingly several brands have virtual footprints in these spaces.
What I’m getting at here is the evolving environment and therefore decisions open to brands when developing a strategy for virtual world marketing (and let’s just hope they do actually have a strategy). Maybe one way to look at the strategic options is using the Beg, Borrow or Steal analogy.
Second Life is a generalist virtual world, catering to everyone and no-one. It allows endless capabilities for creativity or alternatively just an interestingly chaotic mash-up. But for brands, generalist worlds such as SL can be harsh places to do ‘stuff’. You just need to take a look at the traffic levels for many of the global brand venues (even right after the fanfare launches) to realise how little impact they actually had in-world. Not too many people cared.
However, the majority of SL marketing campaigns that actually did have an effect in-world were the ones that actively went looking for residents. They didn’t sit back in the comfort of their branded island and wait for the floodgates to open (if only). Instead a more direct approach meant the brands came down from their real-world pedestals and got their hands dirty with the locals.
The communication approach that this instance is one of kindly asking for the attention of residents and appreciating/realising that the main reason for these residents to be in-world is definitely not to look at real world brands.
Does this approach world for all brands? Definitely not. But for some, especially in the clothing, fashion, appearance and accessory categories, there’s real demand for real-world brands.
Some companies, mainly American, have taken a different approach for the virtual antics and instead have taken their brands into more controlled environments – they’ve borrowed the land and the attention of the members for tactically short bursts of activity.
Is Borrowing good? For some brands for sure. The degree of brand control in this type of environment is much higher than in a generalist world, basically because the virtual world owner is getting paid by the brand to create and manage the marketing effort and typically these worlds don’t allow too much UGC in-world.
Example of these types of platforms…..vSide, Stardoll, There, Kaneva, Whyville and a few more.
Typical user profiles for the users in these worlds……teens and young adults.
Are there downsides to Borrowing?
One issue is the constraints of the virtual world where the campaign takes place. Different worlds have different design values, styles, functionality and cultures. And, although the target market of the world may be a great fit for the brand, limitations on what’s actually possible (mainly technical reasons) may dillute the overall concept. All the more reason for virtual world operators relying on brand marketing revenue streams to pay closer attention to the real-world activities and drivers of their potential clients.
A lower amount of marketing data available is another potential downside for brands considering Borrowing. Different worlds have different levels of user and interaction data available pre, during and post campaign. Perhaps another area for virtual world operators to focus on.
The most recent development in the virtual worlds space from a brand perspective is the concept of these companies creating their own worlds. Doing this means they’re stealing attention (in the form of registered accounts and time) away from other virtual worlds.
Of the three options outlined in this post, stealing is the most expensive and time-consuming option. In fact, a real-world brand creating their own virtual world has to take a dedicated business-unit approach to the operation due to the sheer volume and wide array of elements required to launch a world.
But does this investment pay-off? We have early examples of successful brand-worlds, such as Barbie Girls and vMTV to look at. More interestingly though here is the high number of worlds in development from brands. Many companies are brave enough to put their money where their mouths are and go for it. Why? Because the benefits in theory are clear…
Total brand control in a world built specifically for that brand can only be a good thing. ‘Owning’ the member is another good reason as is the opportunity to create dedicated virtual revenue streams from activities in-world.
Understanding the wants and needs from the target market in a virtual space is the key for success with this option.
Are there any other options?
Oh yes. There’s some really unique new business models coming downstream built in some cases specifically for virtual world brand marketing. Some relate to virtual goods and services, some to cross-world experiences and even some taking a more augmented reality approach. So, great news for brands – they have a choice. What does this mean for the various types of virtual world operators and propositions? It means competition. And we all know who benefits from competition.
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